A partly true and partly false Bill of Indictment?

Originally Appeared in : 9906-3/14/19

During the summer of 2018, a sequence of events unfolded that snowballed into a major crisis for the Catholic Church in the United States and throughout the world, a crisis I have called “The Perfect Storm.” 


Three events followed in rapid succession: 1) on June 28, Pope Francis requested and accepted Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals; 2) on Aug. 14, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, released a report of a state grand jury of its months-long investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses over a period of 70 years; 3) during the night of Aug. 25-26, the notice of an 11-page “testimony” by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was disseminated by a “media network connected with the conservative galaxy opposed to Pope Francis” to journalists around the world. At the end of this testimony, Archbishop Viganò called on the pope to resign over the McCarrick affair.


Reports of these events produced a firestorm of criticism, fanned by the winds of social media, in the midst of which key points were overlooked, judgments were rushed and pain inflicted on the innocent as well as on the guilty. In an effort to clarify what actually happened in the McCarrick case, I recently presented a summary of Andrea Tornielli’s Il Giorno del Giudizio which exposed Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s attempt to pin the blame on Pope Francis, the one pontiff who acted against the abusive cardinal, instead of on the three previous popes who had promoted him from priest to bishop to archbishop and to cardinal.


Now I want to summarize a masterful article by Peter Steinfels, who was the senior religion reporter for the New York Times from 1988-1997. Entitled “Vehemently Misleading: The Pennsylvania Grand-Jury Report Is Not What It Seems” and published in the Jan. 25, 2019 issue of Commonweal, Steinfels’ commentary is distinguished from those of others because he “actually read” the massive report in its entirety.


The purpose of grand jury “is not to determine guilt or innocence but only whether there are sufficient grounds to bring an indictment and trigger a trial.” The prosecution presents its case in the absence of any defense, and the grand jury decides to indict the accused or not. At the subsequent trial, a petit jury “determines [the] guilt or innocence of the accused, by examining the evidence and testimony presented by both sides under the strict supervision by a judge.”


The Pennsylvania grand jury did not issue a “true bill of indictment” against anyone. Instead, it issued an investigative report, which, in the words of Stanley H. Fuld, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, is “at once an accusation and a final condemnation… That carries the same sense of authoritative condemnation as an indictment, without, however, according the accused the benefit of the protections accorded to the one who is indicted.” Steinfels writes that “the report makes no bones about its intention to be judge and [petit] jury,” and to hand down unofficial convictions for crimes that will go ‘unpunished and uncompensated otherwise.’” Given the report’s discrepancies, inconsistencies and language characterized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as “incendiary,” which is to say, “inflammatory,” in my view, amounts to a partly true and partly false bill of indictment that has led to the conviction by the media of the innocent as well as the guilty, sentenced indiscriminately to the shredding of their reputations.


Steinfels finds it “ironic that people raising perfectly legitimate questions about the accountability of bishops should overlook questions about the accountability of investigating grand juries.” He points out that the report “makes not one but two distinct charges. The first one concerns predator priests, their many victims, and their unspeakable acts.” It is unfortunately “dreadfully true” that some “priests were raping little boys and girls.” The second charge is that all the victims “were brushed aside in every part of the state by Church leaders who prefer to protect the abusers and their institutions about all” and that “the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.” 


Steinfels concludes that the second charge, that “the men of God who were responsible for them”—mostly bishops—“not only did nothing; they hid it all” is “misleading, inaccurate and unjust.” The report itself documents cases that appeared to have been handled properly, especially after the Dallas Charter of 2002, as well as those handled improperly, especially before that date. 


For example, a “careful review of the report’s own evidence from [the Diocese of] Erie indicates that, for the most part, since 1982, victims in that diocese were generally not “brushed aside,’ deterred or pressured from going to the police and not offered help”; the Bishops of Erie did not “do nothing.” “The grand jury’s own evidence does not substantiate the prevailing script about how predators got away with committing and recommitting their crimes.”


Steinfels ultimately concludes that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report “is inaccurate, unfair, and fundamentally misleading. Its shortcomings should not be masked by its vehement style, its befuddling structure, or its sheer bulk.”


Both Steinfels’ analysis of the Pennsylvania report and Tornielli’s analysis of the McCarrick case should be kept in mind when the fruits of the recent meeting of the presidents of the national bishops’ conferences with Pope Francis have been elaborated upon. It has already been announced what these will be: 1) a new Motu proprio (“decisional document”) by the Pope “on the protection of minors and vulnerable persons”; 2) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will then publish a vademecum—a detailed manual—to help the bishops “clearly understand their pastoral duties and responsibilities”; and 3) “the creation of task forces of competent experts” to help the dioceses deal with abuse—every single case of which Pope Francis has called “a monstrosity in itself, which must be met with the utmost seriousness.” 


Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.


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